LOS ANGELES — The road rage case of Aiden Leos, a 6-year-old boy fatally shot as his mother drove him to kindergarten in Southern California, tugged on heartstrings across the country. His death fueled nationwide outrage – and half a million dollars in reward money.
Then, two weeks after Aiden's May 21 death, a couple was arrested – and among the allegations is a murder charge against a 24-year-old man who police say admits to firing the fatal bullet.
Now the question is: What happens to the $500,000 in reward money? It's not the first time that a large reward has built up in a case, and it's certainly not the first time that questions linger. Authorities often remain mum about such things as evidence, who tipped them off, and when someone might receive the money that a generous public donated in the hope of someone coming forward.
“There are quite a few hoops that you have to go through in order to get reward money,” Diane Birnholz, a former federal prosecutor and current lecturer at UCLA School of Law, said. “That's why I think it's more of a minority of cases where rewards are actually dispersed.”
In the weeks prior to the arrests, California Highway Patrol officials say they got hundreds of calls and emails with possible leads. According to officials, they received a tip that led them to Marcus Anthony Eriz, 24, and Wynne Lee, 23; specifics haven't been revealed. Eriz is being held without bail, while the precise amount of Lee's bail is pending an evaluation.
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Orange County supervisor Don Wagner, one of the people who donated to the reward, told USA TODAY in a statement that "claims on the reward money will be considered later as to not jeopardize the investigation." Such claims from reward administrators are common - and understandable to an extent, since rewards often are touted with the caveat that a tipster's information must lead to a conviction.
“I’m grateful for all the tips investigators received and thank the citizens of Orange County who came together to provide financial and emotional support to Aiden’s family,” Wagner said. “It is too early to discuss any claims to a right to payment of the reward. The investigation continues and the suspects have not been convicted."
Even after a conviction has been made, sometimes the reward won’t be distributed in full. In the case of ex-Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner’s arrest for murdering three and injuring two, not all the $1 million reward was paid out. Vicki Curry shared with the Los Angeles Times that the reason for the reduced amount is because some of the donors felt that the criteria – Dorner’s conviction – for distributing the reward was not met. No conviction was made because he died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
On April 5, 2013, most of the donors met to establish a process to decide how to distribute the reward, which included creating a panel of three former judges to decide who should receive the reward and how much. The panel ultimately decided that Karen and Jim Reynolds, a couple who were held hostage in Big Bear, California by Dorner and tipped officers of his location after escaping, would receive 80% of the reward because their information “directly led to the hot pursuit and capture of Dorner,” according to the memorandum of decision.
The panel also decided that 15% would be awarded to Daniel McGowan for reporting Dorner’s location by sharing that his burning tuck at the ski resort in Big Bear and 5% would be awarded to R. Lee McDaniel for informing the police of Dorner’s whereabouts at one point during the search.
In Aiden Leos’ case, there are multiple donors ranging from government officials to anonymous donors. Birnholz believes that the varying donors may cause issues in the case.
“You've got different sources that are donating money towards the reward, and they may each have their own standards as to how it's dispersed,” she said.
Crime Stoppers works with law enforcement to provide anonymous tips. Natalie Salazar, the executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Crime Stoppers, said that the organization offers a way for people to share information anonymously without fear of retaliation or providing personal information which is often the case when reporting directly to law enforcement. They also offer up to $1,000 for any information leading to an arrest. They are funded by private donations, ensuring that a payment will be made as long as the information directly leads to an arrest of a suspect and the reward is claimed within 90 days. If it is not claimed, it goes back into their reward fund.
Although the reward is higher for those funded by government officials and businesses, it is not always guaranteed.
“Almost all of those cases that I've seen where that happens, that reward is not paid out,” Salazar said. “Unless the tipster is willing to forgo their anonymity, they may remain confidential, and they usually will not receive that reward until there's been a conviction in the case.”
Determining who receives the reward upon someone’s arrest gets muddy and depends on each case:
On Dec. 3, 2020, Caitlyn Kaufman was shot and killed as she drove westbound on Interstate 440 in Nashville. Metro police arrested suspect Devaunte Hill the following Friday on Dec. 11 after a reward for his arrest grew to $65,000. Businesses and entrepreneurs donated $50,000 of the total amount. The tip that brought police to an arrest was made through Crime Stoppers. Once someone is convicted, the anonymous tipster is expected to receive the reward money.
On March 2, 2012, Ken Konias Jr. was arrested for an armored car heist in Pittsburgh after a procurer and his girlfriend reported him to police. Konias stole $2.3 million and killed his partner Michael Haines while working on Feb. 28 as an armored car driver for Garda Cash Logistic. The transporting company offered $100,000 to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest and conviction of Konias. The names of the tipsters who earned the reward haven’t been published.
On June 13, 2017, two Georgia inmates escaped a prison bus, allegedly killing two guards in the process. The two inmates, Ricky Dubose and Donnie Rowe, were found two days later after the reward for their arrest grew to $141,000. Various government organizations, such as the FBI, and anonymous private donors supplied the money. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations announced they would split their $20,000 to two Tennessee households. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills was responsible for deciding the distribution of the rest of the money, except FBI and ATF’s donations which was handled privately. Stills gave $5,000 to one person whose car was stolen and damaged by the inmates during their run. The remaining $91,000 was split evenly between the two households in Tennessee and a confidential informant for the U.S. Marshals Service.
Authorities have kept information vague on how arrests of Eriz and Lee were made. Birnholz said this brings more questions about how much impact tips had in the arrest and how much was from their own investigation.
While it is unclear what will happen to the reward, many of those who donated shared their support and sentiments of the suspects’ arrest.
Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley matched Wagner’s donation to support the search and amplify the investigation along with others in the community who were impacted by Aiden’s death.
“I am grateful for all the community and the media that stepped up to amplify the need to find the suspects because in a civilized society, we should not fear driving down the freeway taking our kids to school that one of them is going to be shot in the back,” she said.
A flurry of others started to donate after Foley kept Aiden’s story present in the media. The Orange County supervisor said the attention towards the growing reward led to even more tips and calls from community members. The influx of information going towards CHP led to the eventual arrests.
“Unfortunately, we're in a society now where people are motivated by money, more than doing the right thing all the time,” she said. “So the reward system really does work.”
The Times reported investigators identified the couple after getting a tip and enhancing an image of the vehicle's license plate. They also discovered both commuted to work in the Inland Empire region of Southern California and were in the area of the shooting when it happened.
In reflecting on why the case had prompted so much cooperation, in addition to national attention, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said, “It’s because it could have happened to any one of us.
"We all drive the freeways of Southern California. We’ve all gotten upset at other motorists; other motorists have been upset at us. I’ve thrown some gestures about myself. But it’s never come to a situation of violence, and certainly not in my realm or your realm to the loss of a life.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aiden Leos: Will $500K reward be paid in California highway killing?